On 20 February, the Bulaq Criminal Court handed novelist Ahmed Nagy a two-year prison sentence, provoking diverse sectors of civil society to censure the Egyptian state’s curtailment of the freedom of thought and expression, reflected in the arrest and imprisonment of journalists, researchers, writers, activists, and others.
Following the sentence, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) and the syndicate’s freedoms committee held a press conference to express solidarity with the beleaguered novelist on Tuesday.
“Today, we are gathering again—I cannot remember how many times we have come here—to defend our freedoms, in which the state does not believe at all,” said Khaled El-Balshy, the head of the Press Syndicate’s Freedoms Committee, said at the press conference.
Indeed, El-Balshy’s remarks follow by just two days an assembly of NGOs who gathered to express solidarity with the El Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, which has been issued a closure order by the Ministry of Health.
“All those who advocate freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to fair trials, must defend the attack on those freedoms, defend prisoners of conscience, and stand against cases of ‘religious contempt’,” ESDP said in a statement Sunday.
El-Balshy related an incident that happened to Nagy in prison, in which a prisoner mocked him when he found out that Nagy was sentenced to two years for ‘writings of public indecency.’
However, El-Balshy indicated that the scope of the issue extends beyond one person. “There is an unprecedented increase in religious contempt charges, used as a weapon against people’s thoughts. I cannot look at Nagy’s case as a singular incident, but rather as part of a state strategy that is completely hostile to freedoms guaranteed by the constitution,” he stated.
While the Egyptian Constitution does not disallow the state from issuing punitive measures in cases concerning the expression of opinions, Constitutional expert Nour Farahat contended that that the state is not invested with the constituted authority to imprison anyone for this charge. “This means that the penalty in such cases could be something else, like a fine,” Farahat told Daily News Egypt.
Speaking at the press conference, Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), delimited the scope of article 98 in the Penal Code which concerns “religious contempt” and the state’s constant transgression of its proper bounds. “Those cases not only target well-known intellectuals or journalists, but mostly ordinary people. I followed more than 20 cases, I have seen families displaced over such charges,” Thabet stated.
The researcher accounted for two cases involving three children aged between 9 and 15-years-old, who had been convicted by courts for contempt of religion. In one case, a child was accused of tearing pages of the Quran, and in the second case the charge was levelled for content published in a Facebook post. In the final case, the child was charged with intentionally inciting sectarian tensions.
Nevine Mossaad, a member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), called these state impositions a set-back in the freedom of creativity and thought, adding that society is “gradually closing.” The constitution allows for such freedoms, but in practice, the state is denying them, Mossaad told Daily News Egypt. She issued a plea to the newly elected House of Representatives to protect the provisions made by the Egyptian Constitution.
Broadening the discussion beyond Nagy to indicate the more systematic nature of the curtailment of freedom of expression, Mossaad pointed to the recent closure of a music venue. “Two days ago, the head of the Singers Syndicate banned heavy metal concerts, then called the musicians ‘worshipers of the devil,’ and that is exactly the problem,” she stated.
The prison verdict issued against Nagy follows an appeal presented by the general prosecution on a first verdict, acquitting him, in January, of charges of publishing and writing an article with “obscene sexual content”. The court sentenced Nagy to two years in prison and ordered the editor of Akhbar Al-Adab to pay a EGP 10,000 fine for publishing Nagy’s article, according to the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
A chapter of Nagy’s novel, The Use of Life, was published in Akhbar Al-Adab, a literary journal that operates the under state-owned Akhbar Al-Youm. The novel had already been published by Dar El-Tanweer publishing house without censorship from authorities. Nagy’s book was initially printed outside Egypt, and thus circumvented state oversight, according to Mahmoud Osman, a lawyer at AFTE.
The AFTE published the details of the first acquittal verdict issued by the court, which stated that freedom of expression and opinion disallows the state from preventing a textual document from being published. The court also called the moral evaluation of textual documents relative, stating that a moral assessment of Nagy’s work as containing ‘offensive content that violates public morality’ cannot be proved by appeal to a universal standard. Finally, the court argued that the sexual content published by Nagy was previously featured in other literary works and therefore not exceptional.
A number of publishers, authors, and journalists scheduled a meeting on Monday following an invitation from founder of Merit publishing house Mohamed Hashem to coordinate “a unified stand to defend freedom of expression”. The Front to Defend Freedoms was launched at the Press Syndicate on 11 February. The initiative is comprised of several NGOs and political parties, including the ESDP, Al-Dostour Party, and the Popular Current Party. The front aims to address the state’s violations of human freedoms, including its practices of arrest, imprisonment, enforced disappearance.
Earlier this year, writer Fatima Naoot and Islamic researcher Islam El-Beheiry were also sentenced to prison for their published content. Both were charged with religious contempt, and inciting defenders of freedom.